From the World

The Roots of Modern Design

Recreation pavilion, Mirman House, Arcadia, 1958

Have you ever wondered where the ideas for the modern designs in your living room came from? We know we love the sleek and simple designs of contemporary trends and modern homes, but now we can learn about some of the designers responsible for these innovative creations and of their California-inspired products and ideas.


The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) of Salem, Massachusetts holds the answers with the display of California Design, 1930 – 1965: Living in a Modern Way. The exhibition, organized by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the first major study of modern California design and features over 250 objects ranging from classic cars and Barbie dolls to innovative designs of furniture and fashion — on display from March 29 to July 6, 2014.


The detailed exhibition illustrates the ways in which California became America’s primary source of progressive design during and after World War II. The flood of new residents to California during this time allowed designers and creators like Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler to meet the modern needs of the people in new and innovative ways. The state’s wide influence on America’s material culture is portrayed in four sections of the exhibition: Shaping, Making, Living and Selling. These areas set the stage for the ways in which the environment as well as social and cultural conditions of mid-century California shaped the sleek, modern design of homes, decor, furniture, fashion, automobiles, and toys that we still love today.


The goal of mid-century California designers remains significant in the rising awareness of contemporary and sustainable lifestyles and products today, and that is to create well-designed, affordable, and comfortable modern homes to those who desire them. After WWII, a new culture of innovation and exploration in design took hold in California and many new production methods and materials were used. Opportunities for further experimentation only grew with the population increases and rise of the motion picture industry. A shift in design took place in California, according to designer Greta Magnusson-Grossman in 1951, when she claimed that it was no longer “a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions…It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way.”


These roots of innovative and modern ideas planted after the war sprouted the designs that we see and enjoy today. For example, the temperate climate and ideal weather of the golden state spurred the idea for modern homes that supported indoor-outdoor living. New construction and architectural techniques and materials allowed designers to create open-plan homes with floor-to-ceiling windows and doors, collapsing the barriers between contemporary indoor spaces and the outdoor environment. Other developments in fiberglass technology made it possible to create new, sleek designs of automobiles and surfboards, to enjoy all that California has to offer.


All of these objects, as well as many others, can be viewed in the exhibition. You can also view the accompanying 360-page catalogue or the exhibition’s second publication, A Handbook of California Design, 1930-1965: Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers, to become more informed on over 140 mid-twentieth century figures in California design and their work that we have come to know and to imitate in modern homes today.


Wonder no more about the origins of your innovative home designs and your favorite contemporary decor and enjoy all that this exhibit has to offer.


Learn more about the Peabody Essex Museum, as well as exhibition dates and details on their website,